The biggest challenge to hotel guests' privacy rights may not come from government investigators fighting terrorism. It may instead be fromcharges. With sizeable attrition bills becoming commonplace, many planners are requesting that hotels provide information about their guests to ensure that all meeting attendees are properly counted.
Consider this common scenario: A planner signs a hotelcommitting to use 1,000 rooms, with 10 percent permitted slippage. After the meeting ends, the hotel calculates that only 745 rooms were used — 155 rooms under the 900 guaranteed. Facing a sizable attrition bill, the planner asks to see the hotel's rooming list to verify that all of her guests were counted in the block. The hotel refuses, citing guest privacy concerns.
For hotels, protecting guests' privacy is a matter of good business. Guests want information about credit cards, personal preferences, and sometimes even the basic fact that they stayed at the hotel to remain confidential. Whatever the reasons, it is certain that a hotel known for divulging guests' personal information would have little business.
But Is It Legal?
Many professionals in the meeting industry believe that hotels are prohibited by law from disclosing guest information. This is only partly true. A hotel might be liable if it gave out guest information for no good reason, or if it negligently divulged information that caused a guest to suffer an injury.
On the other hand, it is well accepted that hotels divulge certain guest information. Unless a guest specifically requests privacy, all hotels will connect a caller asking for a guest by name to her room. The hotels, in effect, will confirm to almost anyone who asks that a particular guest is staying with them.
The legal lesson is that hotels must take reasonable measures to maintain the confidentiality of guest information, but they may divulge that information to the extent appropriate for legitimate business purposes. And returning to the attrition scenario, there is generally no legal prohibition on hotels sharing their rooming lists with meeting planners.
Comparing lists is perhaps the only way for planners to ensure that a hotel has counted all appropriate guests in a group's room block. A hotel might argue that its staff can check a group's guest list themselves; however, as a practical matter, few planners facing attrition would trust a hotel to make a complete count. Planners want to verify that they are paying the right amount, and they have a legal right to do so.
A planner's right to check hotel guest records is not without limits, however. Most importantly, the right to compare records should be written into the meeting contract. If it is not, a hotel might argue that it has no duty to divulge guest records. The contract should also ensure that the information shown to the planner is not put to unauthorized use.
By creating guidelines for reviewing guest lists, the planner will obtain the information she needs to verify attrition charges, and the hotel will respect the privacy rights of its guests. This is a sound balancing of each party's rights and obligations.
Joshua L. Grimes, Esq. is a lawyer with a nationwide hospitality practice and a frequent speaker at meeting-industry events. His clients include meeting planners, associations, hotels, convention/conference facilities, and other industry suppliers. Grimes may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (215) 772-5070. Or visit his Web site, www.grimeslaw.org.